Buzz Aldrin’s passion is clear for all to see. It’s not the jeans, jacket or unexpected striped red braces, but on the T-shirt. Beneath the words “Destination Mars” there sits an astronaut’s visor reflecting a red Martian surface. It depicts a human mission that Aldrin hopes will one day become a reality. For him, this means a permanent base.
“The first people that go to Mars are in quite an honourable position but we’re going to bring them back. The president who sets up permanence,” he says, “is going to go down in history.”
Elements of Aldrin’s own history can be found among the five chunky rings adorning his fingers. The two on his left hand represent his pre-lunar existence. “That’s a ring that my grandfather had,” he says, pointing to a gold signet ring.
“That’s MIT,” he says, referring to the large Massachusetts Institute of Technology class ring next to it. A gold beaver, the MIT mascot, is raised above a black rectangular setting. “It’s where I got my Doctorate’s degree.”
Aldrin’s Doctorate of Science in Astronautics, gained in 1963, included a thesis on ‘manned orbital rendezvous’ of two spacecraft. It was atheory he was able to put into practice three years later on the Gemini 12 mission, gaining him the nickname ‘Dr Rendezvous’.
The most eye-catching piece of jewellery, however, contains a circular diamond and is the middle of three rings on his right hand. It’s this ring that gives an insight into how his life changed from engineer and academic to astronaut – and celebrity.
Aldrin’s plan involves using spacecraft like shuttle buses, in hyperbolic orbits back and forth between the Earth’s Moon and Phobos, Mars’ largest moon
“This fancy one here was given to me by Mohammed Ali by his people,” he says. “It has my name on it and his name on the other side.”
I examine it closer. The engraved words “world champion” also encircle the diamond above the boxer and the astronaut’s names. This ring makes the one on his pinkie, and the diamond-encrusted crescent-moon-and-star combination on his middle finger, look positively understated.
“Now this is a typical symbol not of Turkey or Islam,” he says, “but having gone to the Moon and written a story about travel between stars, it became quite appropriate to different parts of my past and history. But the star is really not as significant any more so I need to round that off and put a ruby in it for Mars.”
He smiles. “Symbolism is catchy. Now I’m working with Florida Tech and the Buzz Aldrin Space Institute so I may create my own Florida Tech-type ring.”
Aldrin is clearly something of a fan of bling. He’s also sporting space-themed lapel pins and numerous metal, ceramic and material bracelets on each wrist, including one with white cubes. Four of them spell out B-U-Z-Z in black lettering.
It’s an incongruous touch, but then Aldrin is full of surprises. In 2010 he recorded a rap song called Rocket Experience, produced by Snoop Dogg. In the summer he’s a holographic guide for a new virtual reality Mars exhibition that opens at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. But away from these trappings of space celebrity he is serious about the ‘cycler’ orbits he has devised that will take people to Mars and back.
Aldrin’s plan involves using spacecraft like shuttle buses, in hyperbolic orbits back and forth between the Earth’s Moon and Phobos, Mars’ largest moon, and docking with smaller spacecraft while in orbit.
His original idea was for outbound and returning orbits to and from the Moon, with the aim of space tourism. Passengers would enjoy the view from the spacecraft rather than landing on the lunar surface. “Nasa was not that interested in it,” he says. “The Russians experimented but never made it a manned flight. It looked like they might but the price is too high and there are no takers.”
At the suggestion of a former head of Nasa, Aldrin applied his orbital ideas to Mars instead. “Some people wanted to call it an ‘up escalator’ going up to Mars and down again,” he says. “Well Buckminster Fuller taught me that in space there’s not really an up or down. There’s an out and then there’s a back. So they chose to label my system ‘up escalator’ and it wasn’t very complimentary,” he says. “Neither was ‘Dr Rendezvous’. But when new ideas are brought out it rocks the boat.”
This system is now known as a cycler orbit. This is an orbit around the Sun that passes by Mars and the Earth. The aim is to use a large spacecraft – like a shuttle bus – orbiting back and forth between them. The gravity of each planet acts as a slingshot to boost the spacecraft’s speed, reducing the amount of propellant required, leaving more living space for astronauts. Smaller taxi-style spacecraft will deliver astronauts from Earth to the larger spacecraft and the idea is to use Mars’ largest moon, Phobos, as a stepping stone to Martian colonisation.
Aldrin’s intellectual contribution to space travel is less well known than his astronaut past
His Mars cycler orbit idea led to collaborating with Professor James Longuski at Purdue University in Indiana and setting up the Purdue-Aldrin Project.
“That brought an association with his graduate students who then came up with some improvements based on my idea,” he says. It led to a detailed feasibility study last year – and a timeline for colonising Mars by 2040. “Occupy, not visit,” he says firmly.
If given the chance, I ask Aldrin, would he go to Mars tomorrow?
“No.” he responds immediately. “I’m more valuable back here.”
It sounds immodest (and may well be) but perhaps it’s because Aldrin’s intellectual contribution to space travel is less well known than his astronaut past. I get the sense he wants to be remembered on Earth for his engineering skills and orbits, not just for leaving his footprints on the Moon.
When I last interviewed Aldrin in the mid-90s, it was to publicise his first foray into science-fiction with the writer John Barnes. Aldrin was keen to go off topic and discuss Mars even then. Twenty years later and Aldrin’s most recent non-fiction books, of which there are many, concentrate on colonising the Red Planet.
“I won’t be alive when they do but you can get a lot of people to do it, who are outdoorsmen, or they like to dig in rocks and look for little amoeba, or study the rocks and the craters. But that’s not me.”
Aldrin will therefore remain on Earth – and leave Mars for future generations.
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